A Recovering Compulsive Liar Sheds Light on Women Academics Posing as Other Races
This phenomenon angers and befuddles many. As someone who lived a double life as a teenager, I have insight on this matter.
There’s been this odd rash of white women, mostly in academia, in the past year who have posed as a different race.
Rachel Dolezal was the most prominent case of this where she was a college professor who posed as a mixed race or light-skinned Black woman for several years, even legally changing her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo and leading a NAACP chapter until her parents outed her. It sparked this debate on whether “transracialism” is something as valid as being transgender, but it was mostly met with anger and disbelief.
Turns out she wasn’t the only one. There have been women in academia who also did this for years, got found out, then resign from their posts and hide in shame if they were not terminated like Dolezal was. BIPOC scholars and writers are rightfully hurt and furious, especially if they were denied academic and/or professional opportunities based on racial prejudice and misogynoir. Many Black women see it as a systemic form of violence against them. I do not fault them for feeling this way.
I see it on social media and in media media: people ask why. They are stumped and cannot figure out the root of this mysterious strain that feels like it’s approaching similarly pandemic proportions. They’re perplexed as to why someone would do this. But it all comes down to:
What would cause someone to create such an elaborate persona? Why would they do this knowing the harm they are inflicting on marginalized communities, their loved ones, and even their own credibility?
I can’t speak to the specific rigors of academia, but I can speak to the collective trauma women have felt over the past several years and the duality that white women in particular live in America. We are next in the pecking order after white men, yet despite this proximity we have nowhere near their degree of privilege while frequently overlooking the privileges we do have. With everything from reproductive rights hanging in the balance to the pandemic suddenly pulling millions of white professional women out of the workforce, there is absolutely this collective trauma happening.
It was also happening before the pandemic, and before Trump announced his campaign in 2015. But it’s the dawn of the new twenties amid a plague that the rot below the surface has spread to the point that a fault line has formed.
Trauma and feeling spurned are likely at the root of this phenomenon, and it takes someone who had an adverse upbringing — and reaction to it — to point this out. I can speak on what drives someone to compulsively lie and create elaborate personas. I know, because it hellishly defined my teenage years and it took decades to parse why I did it and be able to live with myself for it to the point that I am able to confront this and discuss it openly.
I can only speak for my own experience. But when I was part of a support group for recovering compulsive liars, there were several common threads I noticed which I believe tie into my observations about this wave of white women building elaborate personas of a different race.
What Causes Someone to Compulsively Lie?
Compulsive and pathological lying have distinct differences, but many similar characteristics and are often indicators of other mental health issues like narcissism, borderline personality disorder, or in my case: a trauma response from child abuse. Habitual lying is somewhere between the two. Even if you’re well aware you’re lying, you’ll do it. Why?
This sounds batshit crazy and doesn’t make sense to most people, but it’s a strange form of protecting you. Especially if you’re younger and don’t have any people you can trust, let alone tools and language to address this. Living under adult supremacy also means that you’re less likely to encounter adults who won’t talk down to you, which I feel is partly why compulsive and/or habitual lying is probably a bigger problem among American youth than we’d think.
Most clinicians consider pseudologia fantastica to have internal motivations rather than external, such as the kind that stem from overbearing abusive parents conditioning you to cover your ass and avoid harm.
But external factors can absolutely come in. Constantly being bullied at school and just treated like human garbage by most people was definitely a factor in my case. When I tried to vocalize that I was abused, I was also not believed. This led me to change the narrative completely because I had no other way to take control of it. With the power of lying whenever I was put on the spot, or even with advance notice of being able to fabricate some amazing story, I could be the hero now. Or the victim, if I needed comfort: after all, the terrible things I actually endured resulted in being told to toughen up because life’s not fair, or that my oh-so-hardworking parents were just stressed and I was some bratty kid who didn’t get that video game I wanted or whatever.
So yes. The lies you tell protect you, even though they do you harm eventually. Not just when other people find out, but even if they never find out, you eventually have to live with it. A pathological liar with sociopathic tendencies may not care about that second part, but one who does not have psychosis and/or lack empathy is likely to be haunted by it for years as I was. But you keep doing it because it feels good, as there are often factors beyond your control at play.
It’s because of this that mental health professionals now recognize compulsive and/or habitual lying as both a trauma response and something that requires an addiction framework to treat. Substance abuse issues and other compulsions like food or exercise addictions may factor in, the same goes for genetic predispositon to addiction. “X factors” can also spur you to lie, just like people addicted to drugs and/or alcohol see or experience them and feel an urge to imbibe once more.
Having had a parent with severe borderline personality disorder and her father being an alcoholic, then all the trauma I was subject to as a youngster, shows me in my mid-thirties that I was a ticking timebomb. I can detach myself from it now, where I live in truth. But when this ruled my life? I had a vague inkling I was doing something wrong, but the internal and external pressures to keep lying were present.
It’s a trauma response, and it comes from two chief aspects: being deeply unhappy in your own life and/or place in society, and lacking control over your life.
That’s why I find it interesting that academic women are mostly doing this. Speaking from an outsider’s perspective, you not only have the duality of white womanhood that makes you both a marginalized victim and an unwitting upholder of the hegemon, but also of being a woman in a field that’s even more cutthroat than Corporate America yet doesn’t present itself that way. You can garner much respect for being a professor with tons of publications, classes to teach, and books to sell, or you’re constantly shit on for getting a PhD instead of being out in the real world.
This urge to lie and present yourself as someone else is major when you’ve spent your life being spurned for who and what you are. It’s more common in younger people because we can’t process these things, and abusive home and school environments entail putting out the fire with gasoline. Abusive workplaces can play the same role, especially if an academic environment is a high-pressure one where you constantly must perform.
I lied because I just wanted to be comforted for the terrible shit that happened to me, told it was indeed real, and that I didn’t deserve it. Instead, I twisted myself into a massive web of lies because I felt I had no choice based on how the trauma had completely rewired me all while I was gaslit to believe I had a “happy and normal” life. It got better when I returned to NYC at 18 and got to leave my X factors for this behind, but I still used this habit as a crutch here and there. Often in situations to avoid awkwardness or out of wishful thinking, because that addictive impulse was still there even if my X factors were not.
I see this potentially happening to these women in situations with such internal and external pressures. This doesn’t in any way excuse what these women have done, but helps shed light on it — now that I’m going to talk about the specific racial marginalization aspects.
When Trauma is Not Validated
As people have been pointing out — there’s something up with a lot of white women lately. Institutional misogyny is something that all women are subject to, and white women have a duality of being the next in the hierarchy after white men, yet are still so far behind them: do they see this as a rat race where they should conquer white men, or uplift people in marginalized groups? (Insert equality vs. equity meme here.)
There is SOME kind of collective and/or individual trauma that is not being validated here, and a breaking point was reached some time ago. In this brilliant video by The Take, they examine the “Karen” trope that examines this duality of middle-aged white women asserting their authority yet also being victimized, and going along with the top of the hierarchy winds up never doing them any good.
I’m supposing that they chose to co-opt Black, Latinx and Chicanx identities because they’re seeking an additional level of marginalization as society constantly calls them Karens who need to shut up and need to check their privilege. Perhaps some even see it as some twisted form of empowerment without seeing the harm it is causing.
Habitual lying as a trauma response has yet another duality, one that paints you as both a superhero and a Broken Bird consumed by dramatic evils of the world. By assuming the identity of a racial minority? It could be giving these women some sort of validation they were not receiving in their true forms, just like how I’d lie about both grand and terrible things when it seemed like my real life was not garnering the reactions to my actual pain that I hoped for.
Now I’m not saying “You just need to be nicer to white women and stop calling them Karen and Susan so they’ll stop pretending to be other races!” But there is absolutely some kind of trauma stemming from dismissal, constant spurning, and/or minimization here, if I relate this to my own experiences. Except that I was still developing, and it was delayed due to child abuse, the perplexing part is that they were around the same age that I am now when they did this. Welp, trauma knows no age limits.
Validating trauma is something that needs to be done with a mental health professional first, then with people who’ve had similar experiences.
Privilege doesn’t inure you from trauma and how it changes your worldview. It doesn’t absolve you from responsibility for your actions, but the way that trauma colors your worldview can certainly sap at your agency and the perceived choices available to you.
When you’re consumed by a lying addiction, it’s out of some impulse to protect yourself. It sounds counterintuitive, because of all the problems it creates and the people you hurt, whether it was a friend you lied to about your life or an entire university in most of these cases? But addiction brain just doesn’t make sense. That’s how it works. It’s like how you can’t “just stop” drug addiction, or how you respond to trauma.
Trauma that is not recognized and validated can cause you to live this way for *decades*.
I am not a mental health professional, merely one who suffered with these problems and benefited from years of help with a dedicated therapist as well as reading the work of numerous other mental health professionals who focus on addiction and compulsion disorders. The addiction framework for compulsive lying can help parse the traumas that can cause or compound this behavior. I choose to speak on my experiences to help others validate their trauma, as I know how it feels to spend decades having it dismissed or minimized, just to be told to keep my head down and “toughen up”. Funny, I did that my entire life and was then told being so tough and defensive was unbecoming for a woman and to just go with the flow!
Well, fuck all that. Silence and stoicism are prisons. Social expectations are the warden.
When I finally had my trauma as a child abuse survivor validated, it was like I stepped into a completely different world. Upon finding a therapist who was a good fit for me, I was able to clinically detach myself from my past and experiences and analyze what was individual and what was structural. My therapist repeatedly told me, “You feel guilty, but the lying served some kind of purpose or else you wouldn’t have relied on it so much.” That was how I figured out it was for protection, and the validation I did not get until years or even decades after the fact.
With that said, what these women did was unequivocally wrong and they owe restorative justice to the groups and individuals they have harmed. It’s certainly not on the same level as a disturbed and traumatized teenager who lied extensively as a result of an abusive upbringing and inability to comply with social norms for the time and place.
I’m certainly not arguing that their deeds were wrong. But if you’re confused as to why they did this, well aware of the atomic-level consequences it could have both on themselves and the minority groups in question, it’s highly possible that there’s this collective trauma taking place and it isn’t being validated. Individual trauma and other personal issues are also likely contributing to this decision to create such an elaborate persona despite having a healthy amount of outlets available to them, like video games, books by Black and indigenous authors, or even just using a pseudonym to write fiction on Wattpad.
With the pressure to perform at work, in media, and the incessant barrage of the commentariat on social media, it appears some white women have hit this breaking point. They owe justice to the communities hurt by their actions, which have collective traumas of their own.
The truth set me free, but having friends and a therapist validate my trauma was what unlocked the cage.
I’m happy to live in truth today, and use my experience to help others who are struggling. But perhaps we need to question whether we are also inadvertently invalidating various degrees of trauma experienced by women, simply out of habit.